BOOK INTERVIEW

‘Short-sighted DA will never govern nationally’ – Crispian Olver

By The Reading List 6 November 2019

Image courtesy of Jonathan Ball Publishers

Crispian Olver’s new book, A House Divided, uncovers a Pandora’s box of backstabbing, infighting and backroom deals in the DA-run City of Cape Town that nearly led, during the water crisis, to disaster. The Reading List spoke to Olver about his work.

The Reading List: We’d like to start with a couple of general questions related to what has been happening in the Democratic Alliance recently, and then dive into the book more deeply. You write of the sidelining of Patricia de Lille in the DA in early 2018 that there were “two entirely different narratives”, one being that De Lille was a “narcissistic bully” who was “dispensing patronage and doing backroom deals”, and the other that she was a “threat to right-wing forces within the DA” and thus a “victim of a conservative racist pushback”. This kind of over-simplified, racially-influenced DA narrative has echoes in the events of the last month, I think. Were you surprised at Mmusi Maimane’s resignation?

Crispian Olver: At the time of the implosion around Mmusi Maimane’s resignation, I was gobsmacked that the DA was repeating the same mistakes I saw in the factional battle in Cape Town. The DA’s internal investigations into the split in the Cape Town caucus, led by John Steenhuisen, surfaced many of the difficult issues around race, the failed merger of the ID with the DA, the ideological differences between liberals and progressives, and of course the behaviour of the mayor.

If both sides had made a genuine attempt to address these issues, the DA could have emerged as a racially diverse force, committed to the social integration of Cape Town and the creation of a city that works for all. Instead, De Lille’s hubris and power-mongering acted as a red flag to the DA’s conservatives, who believed that they should never have let go of the party. This led them to circle their wagons around their political base and undertake a putsch against anyone showing social-democratic tendencies.

What started as a campaign of reaction in Cape Town eventually rolled out nationally in the aftermath of the 2019 election. The DA was bleeding to its left and to its right, and the logical strategy would have been to move to the left and capture the middle ground. Instead, they opted for the supposedly safe ground of their traditional base, a short-sighted move that will forever trap them as a party of minorities which will never govern nationally.

TRL: In the book, you mention that Helen Zille saw De Lille and Lindiwe Mazibuko as important to the DA’s “brand value”, which seems to cheapen their roles. A number of people you interview also give the impression that if you are not white you will never truly be accepted in the party, and you write that the DA’s vision of racial inclusivity “came adrift”. As someone who has done extensive research into the party, do you think the DA has a racism problem?

Crispian Olver: The DA definitely has a blind spot regarding race, although simply calling it racist doesn’t quite explain the full extent of the phenomenon. There is a significant proportion of DA members and political leaders – mostly white middle class, but until fairly recently it also included leaders like Herman Mashaba – who believe that the country needs to move on from racial politics, and that to the extent that inequality still exists it needs to be targeted directly and addressed as a class issue. This constituency considers themselves liberal, but in embracing a post-race outlook they gloss over the centuries of racial discrimination that went into the South African project. Whatever limited redress has already happened is deemed sufficient.

An unfortunate behavioural attribute of this constituency is a subtle form of denying the existence of black people, an unconscious refusal to accept that black people can be their intellectual equals, combined with an inability to understand how their behaviour is perceived as hurtful. As a society, we still have a long way to go before we can consider ourselves post-race. 

TRL: There’s a funny moment in the book where you paraphrase Belinda Walker saying of Helen Zille: she “didn’t think you were disloyal if you disagreed with her; she just thought that you hadn’t understood properly”. You first met Zille when you were involved in the End Conscription Campaign in the 1980s, and interviewed her a few times for the book. What are your impressions of her, personally and as a political figure? 

Crispian Olver: Helen is incredibly personable and warm, and able to engage with people from a broad cross-section of society, even those who have diametrically opposed views. She is also quite principled and fiercely committed to what she believes in, quite prepared to endure public opprobrium for her views. This was a remarkable skill-set during the fight against apartheid, in which she played a significant role as a journalist and Black Sash member.

I found it difficult to reconcile the image I had of Helen with the very shrill political animus she subsequently projected. Most people tend to become more conservative as they get older, and perhaps Helen has too, although I don’t believe the accusation she is racist. To a certain extent, Helen is also being used as a cypher for more reactionary elements in the party. But her previously-winning character traits have worked against her, for instance, her unfailing belief that she was right and her inability to understand how her colonialism tweets were perceived.

TRL: As the Cape Town water crisis unfolded, you write that the DA-led City administration was experiencing “schizophrenic expectations that administrators somehow combine an entrepreneurial spirit on the one hand and obsessive compliance with bureaucratic requirements on the other”. Could you expand on this idea, and perhaps outline how it may have affected the water crisis?

Crispian Olver: In response to rising levels of maladministration and corruption in the public service there has been a growing emphasis on compliance and clean audits, which has had only a limited effect on stemming the rot. The DA administration both in Cape Town and the Western Cape took this obsession with clean audits to an extreme level, creating a climate of paranoia about transgressing the rules and regulations.

Respect for the law is, of course, vitally important, particularly in the public service, but a compliance culture can get so extreme that officials end up doing nothing for fear of making a mistake. In complex delivery processes you need to be able to use a bit of judgment, take some risks, and if rules are contradictory, navigate around them. The DA government, egged on by private developers who said the bureaucrats were too inefficient, launched a programme to cut red tape, and encouraged the bureaucracy to be entrepreneurial and cut through regulations to get developments done.

In many instances, the compliance culture and cutting red tape were directly contradictory instructions from the same political leadership. The officials were very mindful that the administration was being used in the factional battle that was unfolding, and were terrified that if they made any errors it could lead to them being fired. When in doubt, officials would request a legal opinion on issues, which usually added weeks to the process. The administration became paralysed, and decision-making ground to a halt.

At the same time, the mayor’s office had centralised most of the policymaking and decision-making. So, when the drought hit, the administration was unable to respond effectively. The politicians, who could have shown leadership and cut through the inaction were themselves caught up in a monumental factional battle.

TRL: A question about your writing process. This book involved a lot of research and travel. At one point, you mention that, in looking into retrenchments and redundancies that were taking place in the city administration around 2014–2017, you interviewed about 50 people. How do you go about planning a book like this? How do you keep track and control of your research? How do you decide what is relevant? 

Crispian Olver: In writing about city governance I try and look at the way that society, politics and bureaucracy interrelate, so I deliberately set out to interview community activists, NGOs, professionals, entrepreneurs, current and former civil servants and politicians from across the political spectrum. There is no magic number to the number of interviews that are required. Essentially, I keep on talking to people until the story starts repeating itself.

My previous experience in PE taught me a bit about the investigation, the importance of triangulating a story and getting multiple views on a subject. The biggest difficulty was that the story kept multiplying – every interview raised another set of questions, and opened up more leads. I would rely on gut instinct in deciding what to emphasise and what to cut. To the extent that I was biased in these decisions, I did try to favour people or communities who were more vulnerable or whose story had not been properly heard.

TRL: You also faced a number of roadblocks in your research, including difficulty gaining access to data about public housing, interview and research requests involving huge amounts of paperwork, that were then denied anyway. What tactics did you develop to fill these holes? 

Crispian Olver: Denying a genuine request to research an institution, even if you think the research might raise uncomfortable issues, is really dumb. The Constitution gives every South African the right of access to any information held by the state, unless that information has been classified. Furthermore, in large, complex organisations such as the City of Cape Town, it is impossible to stop information from getting out, you just can’t control it. 

Both sides in the factional split in Cape Town leaked information as part of their political warfare. As the fight hotted up, and word got around that I was talking to some people, both sides wanted to make sure their views were heard. In addition, staff who had been victimised or chased out of the administration were mostly willing to share details about what had been taking place.

 In the end, I was able to amass a vast database of documents, council minutes, forensic reports, emails, interview transcripts and observations. Usually, interviews involved some negotiation about what could be on or off the record. The key to getting some to trust you is to enter their moral universe and understand people in context. This allowed me to present the protagonists as three-dimensional characters, their good instincts intertwined with flaws and moral failings. For every one of my informants my unspoken commitment was that I would give an honest account. 

TRL: You speak a little about your process when you say, “During my previous investigations into dysfunctional municipalities, the difficulty had always been separating out the petty grievances and grudges from genuine maladministration.” This seems to suggest that you have to rely on your gut instincts about people when doing this kind of investigation?

Crispian Olver: Gut instinct played a big role in building the story – both in terms of the leads that I pursued and in terms of working out what to ignore. Having done How to Steal a City [2017] I’d learnt to trust my instincts to a greater degree, although sometimes these proved fallible. Hubris and gut instinct are not far apart (as De Lille has demonstrated), and I have no doubt that some of the angles I pursued in the story were partisan. My antidote to author’s bias was to try and inject a measure of self-criticism into the story, at times looking back at what the author’s own motivations or failings might be.

TRL: “The abiding impression was that the water crisis had become a political device for rival sides within the DA to pursue other agendas, while the citizens of Cape Town bore the cost.” This quotation, I believe, sums up what you set out to investigate in A House Divided. You have said that you believe there are deep stories to be told about our national politics by looking at the dynamics at the level of the city. What conclusions were you able to draw about the country as a whole after writing this book?

Crispian Olver: Cape Town holds important lessons for the country in a number of ways. Politically, the DA’s greatest win in Cape Town coincided with racially diverse leadership and a progressive election manifesto that set out to integrate the city and make it work for all its residents. But the promise of 2016 fell apart as both sides dug in for a protracted period of trench warfare. What we witnessed was a failure of politics, a failure that has strong national parallels as South Africans gaze with some despair on the options in front of us. 

Cape Town is also a story about the massive damage wrought by overbearing political leadership, and the inability of political parties to build effective state institutions. The idea that mayors can be “executive” creates the false impression that they should, therefore, be involved in administration, and be able to meddle in supply chain decisions and appointments. The end result has been disastrous for the local government.

What surprised me was the extent to which I found political interference in Cape Town, which I did not expect. Whose interests does this interference serve? In Cape Town, the political capital was mostly squandered on ill-conceived private developments. I don’t think we can ever get away from private sector influence in local government, and in some instances, it can be a good thing. I don’t think it’s reasonable to demand that politicians don’t do deals with business, but what we should be demanding is transparency in the nature of these deals, and for leaders to balance competing interests and push programmes that include different stakeholders, particularly the most marginalised of our society, rather than advantage only particular interests.

TRL: Thank you very much for your time. ML

Crispian Olver’s A House Divided: The Feud that Took Cape Town to the Brink is published by Jonathan Ball (R275). Read an excerpt from the book here. Visit The Reading List for South African book news – including interviews! – daily.

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